THE BUDGET’s proposal to remove taxation from the agriculture sector has triggered a robust debate on the need to bolster agricultural production. With the planet this week observing World Food Day, it’s a good time to ask tough questions about the state of our food production. For instance, why is it that as a nation we chose to eat out instead of eating in? Why not consume food produced locally and, in the process, reduce the food import bill?
The benefits of bolstering local food production are myriad. Economically, reducing our reliance on imports would have a profound impact on the foreign exchange situation. Additionally, becoming a net exporter of food would signal a shift in our economic model, opening the doors to growth of employment, tax revenues, and agri-business.
Food security would also shore up our resilience to external shocks, such as the dangers posed by climate change. According to a 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, new evidence suggests a rise in world hunger and a reversal of trends after a prolonged decline.
In 2017, the number of undernourished people is estimated to have increased to 821 million – around one out of every nine people in the world. In the Caribbean, 16.5 per cent of the population was undernourished in 2017, and there were notable increases in Latin America as a whole.
This is a tinderbox. Unless action is taken, there will be an existential threat to the political and social stability of the region. Conflict and strife are on the horizon, though in the case of countries like Venezuela it is already upon us.
But to bring about a shift in the situation not only must supply go up, so too must demand. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, in a radio interview earlier this week, to our mind correctly identified a key cultural factor that serves as a hindrance to reducing the food import bill.
“Much of what we consume is imported and therefore there is a foreign exchange consumption,” Rowley said. “We eat flour which is imported wheat. We eat rice which is largely imported because we don’t have the capacity here to be self-sufficient in rice. We eat all kinds of refined products imported from abroad. The local produce we eat is what you buy in the market, the fresh produce.”
Rowley noted how in past decades this country produced much more. Instead, today there is a struggle to get people involved in farming, despite a barrage of tax breaks.
But the Government, too, has a role to play. What if all state cafeterias, canteens and functions stocked at least 50 per cent local products? Just as the State has led the way in banning plastic, perhaps the time has come to raise people’s appetite in this way.